Sermon for Maundy Thursday

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

When we modern people talk about love, we more often than not speak of it as an emotion: tingly feelings and butterflies in the stomach and so forth. You’ve seen the movies with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan and the rest. There’s nothing wrong with this sort of love, but if the raw feeling is the end of it, such love is ultimately ineffectual.

Thus the words of tonight’s Gospel go well beyond mere sentiment:

Having loved his own which were in the world, [Jesus] loved them unto to the end.

John is not telling us that Our Lord had warm fuzzies for his disciples, but rather that he was prepared to take actions, very specific actions dictated by the law of love.

Christ’s call to “humble service” has become a cliché in the church, and his example has come to be seen as less radical and (indeed) less distressing as it must have been for the disciples that night at Supper. Christ’s example of love is not merely encouragement to work hard for others without regard for recognition. Neither is it a model of ordinary hospitality. No, that is but the patina of easy respectability in which we’ve encased our Lord, for the true meaning of his example is too hard for us.

In washing his disciples’ feet, which in an ordinary non-pandemic year we would reënact this night, Christ is not simply doing a mildly unpleasant task without complaint. Mere hospitality would have dictated that a host provide water for his guest to wash his own feet, or a slave to help if he had one. That would be “humble service” enough. Jesus was not just being hospitable. Rather, he profoundly humiliated himself, he chose debasement-disgrace-by carrying out a task which in his culture was relegated to only the lowliest of slaves.

This would have been shocking to the disciples, as we might discern from Peter’s reaction. It should be shocking to us, and not a little discomforting, for Christ’s mandate, his “Maundy” to us is clear:

For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you.

We, too, it seems, are supposed to choose humiliation, to choose lowliness.

The law of love commands not that we simply set the good of others above our own in some vague, but ultimately comfortable way. Rather, we are to be open to the humiliation of Christ himself, to ourselves become fools for Christ, to ourselves take on the form of a slave, for as Saint Paul says:

God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty; And base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are.

This is an unpopular position in our culture which is sometimes overly concerned with affirmation; I have sometimes called it the Stuart Smalley culture in which “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.” But, at least in my case, low self-esteem is not the problem. For me, the problem is the opposite, and Christ’s example convicts me, as perhaps it does you. Christ’s example convicts me to actually love the family of which I am the spiritual Father by sacrificing myself for it. I’m not good at that. I’m not good at truly keeping my priestly vows as I ought, but thank God that I get reminded to recommit myself to the sacrifice inherent in my vocation from time to time, and this night especially, on which the greatest privilege I have–the celebration of the mystery of Christ’s Body and Blood–is so clearly coupled with Christ’s example of humility.

Later in his long discourse at the Supper Table, Jesus gets to the heart of what washing his disciples’ feet implies for us: “Greater love hath no man than this [he said], that a man lay down his life for his friends.” By the humiliation of washing the disciple’s feet Jesus lays down his life figuratively; by his death on the Cross for our salvation the next day he does so literally.

A new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another.

Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.

Christ, having laid down his life for us has made us his friends, and our mandate is to lay down our lives for others. Perhaps we’ll none of us be called to do so literally, but we shall all have the opportunity to lay down our lives in some sense. Love implies sacrifice; if there’s no sacrifice it’s just warm feelings, not love. May we then all be ready to lay down our lives, in whatever way we may be called to do so, for Christ and for those whom he himself died to save. For it is only in dying to ourselves and abiding in love that we may experience the risen life in him.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Sermon for Palm Sunday

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

In what is perhaps the most egregious example of my exceedingly rare bending of the prayerbook’s rubrics–one hopes not so far as to break them–is that I typically omit the sermon on Palm Sunday. My legal justification is that sometimes “silence speaks louder than words”, and perhaps a period of intentional silence on this Sunday of the Lord’s Passion, after all we just heard, should serve as the most appropriate homiletic response. Perhaps it’s the fact that our services are now broadcast and available electronically (presumably for ever) and I don’t want to provide evidence for the inevitable ecclesiastical trial. Or maybe it’s just the mental fog and compromised judgment of living a year in the time of Covid. In any event, I am obviously preaching a sermon right now, but I promise to keep it brief, considering how full the day’s liturgy is and how frequently you’ll have the opportunity to heat my potentially ill-considered musings during Holy Week.

Speaking of ill-considered musings, and considering my general reluctance to preach on Palm Sundays, this may be my one and only chance to talk about what may be the strangest two verses in the whole of the New Testament. We heard them just a moment ago, in verses 51 and 52 of the fourteenth chapter of the Gospel according to St. Mark, immediately following Jesus’ arrest in the garden.

And there followed him a certain young man, having a linen cloth cast about his naked body; and the young men laid hold on him: And he left the linen cloth and fled from them naked.

So, who on earth is this figure and what is he doing wandering around nearly naked, in the middle of the night, in the midst of what is clearly a dangerous, volatile situation?

The short answer is that we don’t know. St. Ambrose, St. John Chrysostom and the Venerable Bede all claim it was John, the beloved disciple. St. Epiphanius believed it was James the Just. Some believe it was Mark, the very writer of the Gospel we just heard.

It seems to me that the identity of the young man is less important, though, than the meaning of this incident. Don’t get me wrong- for a number of reasons I am absolutely convinced this is an historically accurate account of what actually happened. However, as many of you have heard me say quite frequently, scripture contains a surplus of meaning. The truth of the bible is multivalent, and as the Fathers of the church contended, even a single verse or passage can be read on at least four different levels: the literal (or historical), the tropological (or moral), a typological (making connections between the Testaments), and an anagogic (looking toward “last things”- like death, judgment, heaven and hell). Each of these levels yields some truth or another about God, our relationship to him, his plan for creation, and so forth. Modernist biblical scholars from the 19th Century up to today tend to ignore most of these, which suggests to me a shocking lack of imagination at best and a troubling lack of faith in the Holy Spirit’s ability to inspire scripture at worst.

In any event, while I certainly believe this strange thing actually happened, I think the greater truth here is to be found in its allegorical meaning. So, let’s do a little exegesis together.

The character in question is identified as a νεανίσκος, that is a “young man”, which Thayer’s lexicon tells us has a diminutive connotation. Unlike related words, it can also mean an attendant at some sort. So, we might say something like “this is a little fella’ who’s been hanging around.” This sense is intensified by the verb which follows it-συνηκολούθει. We are also told that the item with which he is covering himself is a σινδόνα, translated here simply as “a linen cloth.”

These two words–νεανίσκος and σινδόνα–each appears only one other time in St. Mark’s Gospel. Christ’s body is wrapped in a σινδόνα for his burial. Another νεανίσκος–another “little fella’ who’s been hanging around”–is spotted in the sixteenth chapter of Mark, by Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Salome. They had gone into the sepulchre to anoint the body of our Lord, found it was not there, and instead the one they assumed to be a νεανίσκος, was in fact an angel, and he was not loosely covered in a burial cloth but in a dazzling white robe.

So, what does all this add up to? Is Father John just showing off and pelting us with Greek lexicography to exact a little bit more penance in this last week of Lent? No, there is a point here.

Just us the young man had what little shielding his modesty ripped away, so did humanity, in another garden, in the flower of its youth have its fig leaf ripped away to expose its sinful nature and so too did the callow apostles flee and so might we seek to avoid revelation of that which is broken and unlovely in ourselves. Just as the thin veil which separates life from death, when removed, exposes the horrible reality of what we are, so does the removal of the shroud from the young man create the shocking realization that something is amiss and something is needful and we haven’t the power in ourselves to help ourselves.

But then there breaks a yet more glorious day. Gone is the linen cloth, the burial shroud, the fig leaf which we use to shield ourselves from the conviction of our sins and the hard reality of our impending death. “For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.” The graveclothes are folded and set aside. The young man is clothed with the righteousness of God. And even so, shall we all be changed.

But here we get ahead of ourselves. That is for next week. I am convinced that every Holy Week we do and should and must participate in a sort of willful act of selective amnesia. Yes, we know how the story ends, but that’s not today’s story. Today we stand exposed like the young man. Today we come to terms with the fact that our Lord is dead and that we are dead. Dead in our trespasses. Naked and afraid. Who will save us from the wrath to come? Who will save us from ourselves? Like Peter, James, and John we will keep watch and we will fall asleep and we will feel the shame of that again. Even so, watch and pray. Like Peter, we make a big, macho show of wounding the high priest’s slave, but when it really counts we claim we don’t know anything about that Nazarene trouble-maker. Even so, we stay in the courtyard, surrounded by people but profoundly alone, and break down in sorrow as the cock-crow accuses us. Like the centurion we realize that this was truly the Son of God, but we realize it just a moment too late. Even so, we see him taken down and we go with the women weeping on their way to the tomb. And at the stone-sealed entrance of that tomb, as it were a proscenium between earth and hell, which should have been our reward, not his, we wait. And:

Here [right here] might [we all] stand and sing.
No story so divine.
Never was love, dear king,
Never was grief like thine.
This is my friend,
In whose sweet praise.
I all my days could gladly spend.

Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

“Thou art a priest for ever, after the order of Melchiz’edek.” Thus, the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews describes Jesus’ priesthood, but what on earth does it mean?

We don’t get much help from the 110th Psalm which the author references, one of only two places in the Old Testament where Melchiz’edek is mentioned. Here’s an exerpt:

The Lord sware, and will not repent:*
“Thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek.”
The Lord upon thy right hand* shall wound even kings in the day of his wrath.
He shall judge among the heathen
he shall fill the places with the dead bodies*
and smite in sunder the heads over divers countries.

I don’t know about you, but this seems a rather strange, disturbing way of understanding Jesus’ place in salvation history. Notwithstanding what I said recently a couple weeks ago about how we downplay Jesus’ overturning the tables of the moneychangers, this takes it to another level of violence to which we needn’t go. Certainly, the kingship of the Father overturning temporal rulers and the Kingdom of God taking precedence over earthly nations is central to Christian eschatology, but the bit about heaping up corpses and smashing heads seems contrary to God’s Covenants (both newq and old) which are, at their heart, all about love.

I think a better way of understanding what the author of Hebrews means is to look back to the fourteenth chapter of Genesis. After a losing battle with Chederlao’mer, the King of Elam, Abram’s nephew Lot had been captured. Abram led a force of Hebrews to rout the king and take back his kinsman. After succeeding in battle, this strange figure comes to Abram and his victorious army:

And Melchizedek king of Salem brought forth bread and wine: and he was the priest of the most high God. And he blessed him, and said, “Blessed be Abram of the most high God, possessor of heaven and earth: And blessed be the most high God, which hath delivered thine enemies into thy hand.” And he gave him tithes of all.

After this, Melchiz’edek disappears from Hebrew Scripture, the only exception being in the psalm already mentioned.

Even with so little information, we can glean a few things from this brief passage. Firstly, Melchiz’edek was not a Jew, but seemed nonetheless committed to the God of Israel. Secondly, he received tithes from Abraham, suggesting his superiority to even the father of God’s chosen people. Thirdly, he is the first figure in scripture to be called a priest (the Hebrew word kohen) a title normally reserved to priests in the temple in Jerusalem. And finally, he brings forth elements which would become sacerdotal for both Jews and Christians- namely bread and wine.

In my daily Lenten refelections recvently I’ve been talking a lot about the typological meaning in Scripture, and this is a great example of the principle. In case you’ve missed those, the idea (employed from very early on in Christian biblical interpretation and even within the New Testament) is that certain things in the Old Testament, particularly obscure things, can be understood as foreshadowing things in the New Testament. So, last week we heard in the Old Testament this strange story about Moses holding up a bronze snake in the wilderness that the ill could gaze upon and be healed, and then in the Gospel Jesus explained that this was a type–a foreshadowing–of his own death on the cross.

Likewise, while at first obscure, the author of Hebrews tells us that Jesus makes sense of the meaning of Melchiz’edek. Just as Melchiz’edek was not a Hebrew, Jesus (while a Jew himself) instituted a Covenant open to Gentiles. Just as Melchiz’edek was of higher stature than Abraham, so is Jesus the final consummation of the Law and the Prophets. Just as Melchiz’edek was the first priest, Jesus would become the first and Great High Priest of the New Covenant. Just as Melchiz’edek offered bread and wine, so did Jesus offer his Body and Blood for our sins and give it to us in the appearance of bread and wine.

In some ways, Melchiz’edek was the priest par excellence of the Old Covenant (despite arriving generations before the establishment of that Covenant) and Jesus is the priest par excellence of the New Covenant. While the priests in the temple obediently offered their sacrifices, they were in some sense a shadow of the perfect and more universal sacrifice of Melchiz’edek. While the priests of the New Covenant (mostly bumbling weirdos like me) obediently offer the sacrifice of Christ’s Body and Blood at the Altar week-in and week-out, these sacrifices are dependent on the one perfect sacrifice of Jesus.

As we draw closer to those great three days when we recreate the tremendous sacrifice and glorious triumph of our God, let us remember what a Great High Priest we have: how the perfect sacrifice for our sins and the great freedom we’ve been given, is ultimately dependent not on our piety, not on how we struggle to attend to the sacred mysteries at the altar, but how it is all an objective gift of our only mediator and advocate–the one priest through which priesthood (both of the ordained and of all believers) is given–to His Body and Bride, the Church.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.